p r o l o g u e
S I L V E R
He was roused by the persisting vibration of a telephone, buzzing against his cheek like a pinioned wasp until he rolled slowly onto his back with his eyes still closed, fetching up against another of his slumberous companions. She moved her feet but their spike heels were immured in the roll of dark blue linen at the end of the bed. William cleared his throat; he could taste vodka, eau de parfum and all three women.
“Just at the moment... I'd have to say no.” he murmured into the telephone.
"Get some scissors and cut that fucking laminate in half. No more backstage for you.” declared the respondent.
“Frost... how can you be so cold, so early in the morning?” he smiled lazily. The two girls lying in each others' arms beside him stirred at the sound of his complaint; all three were powdered with fine chromed glitter, a fresh puff flushed into the air by their movement. Their hair, so artfully arranged into towering futuristic bouffants by a legion of aestheticians, had unravelled into silky, silver-streaked chaos that was not without it’s own allure.
“It’s after six, you lazy fuck. Peel the bitches off and put them in a cab."
He lifted his head.
“I’ve got Lila and Mina and... I think Lauren. I was minding my own business with Lila and Mina, and... she hit us pretty hard... have you seen her from behind? And jesus christ... I swear she can take her teeth out.”
“Let me tell you about my day, asshole."
"Frost..." he sighed, laying a hand over his face. "Don't be like that... détendez-vous..."
"I lost my three biggest girls right after the show, their bookers are reaming me on three lines, they’re totally uninsured and the fucking kraut designer's going into fucking labour because we’re three major pieces short for a flight to fucking Frankfurt in an hour.” The caller took a long, audible drag on a cigarette and leant out of earshot to reassure a companion. The concept of exigence percolated downward through the elements of his confusion. His left arm refused to be recalled and he glanced up at the headboard's painted scene of gilt blossom and cranes to find a handcuff encircling his wrist.
“So... er... what?"
“Call them a fucking car!”
“Drivers won’t come to this hood.”
“Where are you?”
He looked up at the deeply-stepped cornice briefly.
"Fucking A-Town?” He shrugged while the caller deplored his living arrangements. “The bitches can walk home, but you, put anything silver and all the shoes in a fucking car and send them to the store, right now. And you’re blacklisted.”
He let his free hand fall back onto his forehead.
“You don’t mean that, Frosty... je voudrais que tu sois ici...” he purred, smiling again at the thought of her expression.
“Lamb, get your whore voice out of my head and get the shit here or I’m gonna cut it off.”
Still clad in some of the garments to which the caller referred, two thirds of the three stretched out together, shrugged each other off and sat up slowly, breasts lapsing against the metallic vinyl of their sinuous caprisons, their brevity serving the exactions of their infamous trapeze performances. The girl to his left, the most ample of the three, had shaken herself free of the bed entirely and stood naked, diamonds pinned to the most arresting features of her bloomy silhouette and forming a blinking constellation as she moved. Reaching up, she slid her fingers into her hair and shook it loose, standing with her hands on her hips to gaze at the narrow cage beside the wall and it’s trio of avian inmates. She bent to fetch the silver corsetry that had been stripped from her.
“Ladyboy chickens...” she suggested.
William turned his hand in the cuff and tried in vain to free it.
“What’s the time?”
“Six twenty eight. Like, p.m. I am so late for a fitting.” the girl sighed.
The difference between the cool, pelagic greens in each of his eyes became far more pronounced with the sudden change of their expression. He inhaled swiftly and consulted his handset.
“Nai ani’iya...” he breathed. "Keys... I need the keys.”
With the remainder of its occupants he rolled from the bed and together they tossed the sheets for the key to his cuffs, coming up instead with a fistful of tulip-stamped pills, a violet wand, lipgloss tubes and a jelly-pink, glitter-studded vibrator. The ephemera flew into the air and clattered onto the parquet. The trapeze girls dropped to their knees in search of their own accoutrements, forgetting William’s difficulty, and he exploited their distraction to bust the cuff chain with a swift jerk of his arm, wincing as the board cracked. Sweeping his trousers from the curtain rail, he hustled the trio from the room, shaking the contents of his wallet onto the floor of the lounge while they slid into their coats, the margins of their fabulous ensembles still gleaming on their wrists and ankles in the sunset admitted by the glass of the balcony door. Lauren, bag of burlesque props stuffed under her arm, caught his head in both hands and sucked his chin as he stuffed hundred dollar bills into her coat.
“Go out through the fence, then two blocks north to the first rank you see... tell the driver you’re with Edward Lamb.”
“You’re William.” Lila insisted.
“I know, but listen... don’t talk to anyone on the street... walk walk walk and don’t stop. Frost’s waiting at the store for your gear... go straight to the boutique.” he told her, holding the door for the smiling women. They blew kisses and flashed a number of their bountiful gifts at him as they hurried down the corridor and crowded into the elevator.
Out on the balcony his tall shape was darkly mirrored by black stone fascia while he waited for the women to emerge from the foot of the building, leaning over the chromed railing and the eight floor drop. With the sun's retirement the street was deeply shaded by a beetling suite of elderly apartment blocks, and empty of pedestrians; the girls formed radiant foci against the pavement and it was not long before footfalls began to trouble it behind them. A small, dark, stooping figure took up their trail with an intent that compensated for the lameness of its gait. William parked his cigarette in the corner of his mouth and leant back through the sliding door, lifting an air rifle free of the drapery. The neighbourhood enjoyed the quiescence afforded by its evil reputation and a quick aural scan revealed nothing to give him pause. Down on the street the hunching figure had begun to close on the heedless women, bent almost double over its own feet by the intemperance of its designs. Blowing away smoke, William took aim and shot a hunting pellet at the back of it’s head.
Spinning about, his target lurched back at once toward the building it had spilled from, lifting a sickly, chalk-white scowl toward the sky and chittering a string of interlaced obscenities. Its persecutor crouched behind the railing, smiling as he listened to the slighted fury fulminating on the pavement, its cracked, archaic aspect lending grotesque emphasis.
“Ah harken ye, ye slimeh dink bastard!” it shrieked up at him. "Ye durn hunker theya all ye fuckin please, cause ahm a' commin up t'ye!"
William returned to the lounge while his accuser re-invaded the foyer and commandeered the creaking, uncertain elevator. Both hands plumbed his trouser pockets for the key to the front door until he spied it on the atrium floor and worked it into the lock, just as the sounds of turgid discontent spilled out into the corridor outside. For good measure, he coaxed a heavy bombé commode across the door. Thus indemnified, he stood with hands on hips and made a brief survey of the apartment. Its cool, paneled seclusion was stocked with an elegant, if somewhat dissociative sufficiency of Georgian and French furnishings, none of which belonged to him. Their disarray prompted him to drag a garbage bag from the kitchen and begin stuffing something of the detritus into its depths. Grainy white powder coating a tea tray on the floor between the sofa and a daybed prompted him to lift it to his face and press a thumb against one nostril, eyes rolling back toward the door as he was addressed by its thwarted assailant.
“Fuckin cap meh, will ye?" the creature hissed into the lock. "Well hear yee... ahm e-victin ye skank-pokin ass... yew an ye fuckin no-count absentee repr'bate broth'r! Here ah go, nailin it up aroun six four so he kint miss a cock-suckin word. Heh heh heh.”
William resumed his languid struggle with the room, shuffling unresolvable items into a mass that he shepherded with his bare feet, wedging handbags and bottles and takeaway boxes into the sack in his passage toward the bedroom. The pheasants strutted in their temporary quarters, great barred tails fraying against the wire. Throwing open the curtains, he turned back to strip the bed and commit the sheets to the cache that he coaxed toward the bathroom, stuffing it into the tub and dragging the shower curtain closed.
The tapware was silkily calmative, both to his eye and in his hands, expressing with the geometries inscribed upon the walls in veined vert marble the aloof, pre-war grandeur that so pleased him. He lowered his head into the basin, letting the water run from hair dyed noxious parrot red and roughly cut to shoulder-length, closing his eyes against the brightness of his own reflection. Mirror glass reminded him why people stared and he did not consult it with any regularity, his own face so familiar and immutable that he did not require aides-mémoires, though he remembered only belatedly that his brother was uncharacteristically overdue. At his circumspect approach the commode shuddered once, then flew across the atrium with the propulsive duress applied to the door.
Edward Lamb wore a bespoke suit of blue-black summer wool into the space that he had cleared so summarily. His demeanour held only subtle reference to the violence of his intrusion and he carried its indifference into the lounge without a glance toward his erstwhile companion, a long grey gym bag suspended from each hand. Congenital similitude rendered both the differences they had contrived and their remaining correlations striking. While the human eye slid no more easily over his features than they did William's, he had taken more care to subsume their singularity, modeling his disguise on the most anonymous of their surrounding clades, inclusive of those finely-drawn brutalities and vacancies that were an easy match for his native array. The notice to quit had been plastered to the door with packing tape and couched in a crabbed and gloating scribble by an author who had reconsidered spectating its receipt. William took out his cigarette papers and drifted back into the lounge where he sat down, tucked his hair behind his ear and began to roll a joint.
Shedding his jacket, Edward laid it on the sofa and ejected a long blade from the black knife in his hand, stabbing it deeply into the daybed and slitting the sombre damask along its length. From the mask of riven flock he extracted blocks of shrink-wrapped bank notes, dumping them into the bags laid out behind him then repairing to the bedroom where he subjected the mattress to the same callous procedure. Out in the hall, a portion of its rectilinear paneling revealed a shallow niche from which he removed a stack of ammunition boxes and a half-stripped Thompson Annihilator dressed in dust and matted silken webs. With them stowed in the bags he set a chair beneath the manhole, using it to attain the vacant attic and drawing himself swiftly out of sight into its darkness.
From his seat in the lounge William followed the ponderous crackle and rasping drag of weighted plastic through the ceiling plaster; it passed overhead toward the east above an adjoining apartment and died away. He bowed his head and re-lit his cigarette. On returning to the hallway Edward subjected each room to a last inspection. William leant back in his chair and expressed a plume of smoke.
“I’m not dragging my shit down a hundred floors because a bloodsucker has a prolapse.” he advised. In reply, his brother set down the bags in the atrium, took the door of the apartment in both hands and wrenched it off its hinges, leaving it beside the frame. He was gone by the time William leant out to look both ways along the passage, flicking his cigarette at the cackle leaking through the door of the opposite suite.
The sleek copper flank of the bar was cold against Edward’s knee like the hide of a torpid dragon as he wished he had issued his brother’s photograph to the door staff. William sucked emerald jelly shots from the wrists and cleavage of the girl serving their drinks; the spillage dropped over the edge of the counter onto the slightly ragged, belted tartan of his kilt. His blazing hair was tied up in a high knot over a T-shirt stenciled with the word kafir in petrol-pink. The brunette smirked, admitting him under the counter to the mirrored space beyond, rebuffing a colleague’s complaint with a gesture and leading him into the stock room.
Midnight had lured a more fashionable element out of restaurants and openings elsewhere to dilute the bridge and tunnel stock allowed to exhaust their paycheques in their absence; a headcount had sealed Edward's decision to eschew the venture before he was joined by a short and zaftigwoman bound tightly in burnt pink Chanel. She used his arm to assist her onto the stool beside him, acrylic nails almost as long as the fingers behind them. Sinister volumes of tuberose absolute fumed from her person, lifted in a vapour from the cold surface of her skin by the heat of the downlights. She stared at him with thickly-lashed eyes the colour of carbonised hardwood.
“I've talked to the owners and they're gratifyingly desperate. They’ll comp us for the first month during handover... anything you put through the books after that runs at the standard rate.” the woman informed him, her expression sharpening her unsolicited advice into direction. On the night of her death Opal La Rue had been closer to sixty than she would ever acknowledge; the knit suit followed the smooth, gourd-like undulations of her torso closely, covered buttons providing little points of visual relief and underscoring the contrast between the fulsome curvature of her central mass and its dainty extremities. In spite of her zealous deportment she possessed an uncomfortable fusion of zoological attributes, from the de-beaked angle of her tormented nose to the argute, porcine cunning that glittered in her gaze. Her ammoniated hair had been hardened to a glassy turn by lacquer and colours outside life’s gentler palette adorned her face. "I can run agency cattle through this place like it's a feedlot without a single DoL issue, and use it monday tuesday wednesday for wholesale... it's two blocks from Avalon so I can practically walk them in here off the boat." she gloated. "So I've given them a provisional yes..."
“I’m not interested.” Edward replied, his voice possessing all the informative qualities of rock crystal. The woman searched for something in the remark that might defray its obdurate nature, but a television starlet in a brief white dress stood behind them, awaiting her attention with the kind of servile patience and nervous sweat that turned Opal around atop the stool.
“Oh dear god Amelia.” she scolded, taking a tiny plastic package from her handbag and pushing it into her hesitant grasp. “Drop two sizes before you come off hiatus.” The girl’s doe-eyed face fell at the instruction, and she tucked her hair behind her ears. Opal rolled her eyes to the ceiling and turned back to the bar. “Edward, if you want to see what I can do for you, you're going to have to take one hand off the wheel. And tell meplease that you did not pay cash for that rat pit in the hills.” He did not reply. “Of course you did.” she muttered, disgusted. "Rubber band banking again... well then, I’m going need some paintings. I've got New England buyers coming down and they're chasing scale. No red, no yellow. Austerity." The corners of her small mouth angled sharply downward. "If you’re giving up the apartment, at least that creature you call a brother will have to find a dumpster somewhere else. Looks like we were able to keep him out of here...”
Emerging from the stockroom, the bargirl entered her number on William's phone and reapplied her lipgloss while he wiped the same shade from his mouth, coming over to lean heavily upon the bar and offering Opal a smile laden with antipathy. Their antagonism sprang from more than her role as impresario to his brother's public affairs, though her enterprise was as renowned for the depravity of its expediencies. He polished two shot glasses on his T-shirt, poured two liberal measures of pale spirit then knocked both back; the woman grimaced, watching his long tongue catch a drip from his chin.
“Opal... I can understand the yak-hair tea cosy..." he admitted, eyeing her apparel. "It was a yard sale, you were exhausted... maybe there’s a sense of humour under that rugged exterior after all. But why the fuck are you trying to sell him this shiny pleather überdump?" He addressed his brother in a language Opal could not understand, its interfluent syllables broken by a single familiar profanity. "If you really want to fight bent liquidators for money you can’t legally explain, just open a fucking gallery.”
“I know the security here.” she snarled. He shrugged.
“I only know their girlfriends.”
Edward had disappeared from her side by the time she saw fit to resume their lopsided colloquy, and William allowed her to stalk away without further provocation. Taking the bottle, he ducked back under the bar and exclaimed to himself as his brain supplied the feeling that its mass had slithered forward in his skull; he waved a hand before his eyes, counting off its many avatars before they were resolved. He stood still and pondered the voluptuous sensations, the darkness assuming secret, velvety modalities, pressing and retreating, flashing and then spiriting away the faces massed around him. The lustre of a stranger’s bare-skinned shoulder as she passed him closed his eyes and turned them inward, upon a scene suddenly elected out of distant memory, lit with an enclosing myriad of candles and the shallow, fulminating brilliance of paste jewels, perfumed by white lead powder, beeswax and distilled jasmine. The ghost of a smile moved the woman in his arms as they turned, swept by the great beaded skirts of other dancers, their whispering silk sliding by under the flight of the music that expanded to fill the high-domed hall with its dim panels of plate mirror. She smiled again, making a mockery of the gesture with dark laughter from which the sound had been erased, too painful to recall. Her white fingers tightened on his shoulder, discovering his bones.
With the opening of his eyes the vision and its faint score faded, merging with the pulsing bass surrounding him. It occurred to William that he had emerged from darkness largely innocent of lamplight into a burnt-out modernity where night was flushed like a pathology from its domain, and he briefly rued the transition. A pair of acquaintances slid by and he nodded to their greeting while the DJ drew the faders down in favour of a floor show.
The crowd formed around the pool of blue light glowing on the ground and ornamented by a single male figure, lean and unclothed and crouching spiderlike, skin draped over an addict’s framework. The sound of the paint can agitated in his grasp lapsed as he sprayed a perimeter around himself, an acid-yellow tie of the same hue hanging from his neck. When he stood it became obvious that few parts of his person had escaped the cannula, his penis so heavily embellished with silver bijoux that it sagged considerably; William frowned faintly, regretting the vantage conferred by his stature. The artiste began rolling and moaning in earnest, wide eyes possessed of a bulging gelatinous rapture and reminding him of aspic, then cow's hooves, then refectory tables dressed with ponderous brocades and groaning under spitted porpoise meat and coffin-like pyes studded with plums and cloves. A hypnotic litany tumbled from the performer's mouth in piteous falsetto; he grasped his genitals and made a prancing circuit of the stage, stretching the end of the tie into a noose and whipping his thin voice into a howling, plangent crescendo until the wave of babble peaked and he lay salivating in a feigned dementia, arms out in rigored cruciform. The crowd exchanged whispers and retreated, while William pressed his face into his hands, excruciated by the effort of containing his amusement. Taking one more look between his fingers, he gave it up and succumbed to a fit of laughter.
It produced a dilemma for the most distant onlookers, some convinced he was an adjunct to the performance. To those closest to him his paroxysm was a strange and radiant contagion, turning them toward him, their sympatric chuckles spreading exponentially until a full two-thirds of the audience succumbed to the transmitted laughter. Though he held two hands over his mouth, their attention had shifted to such palpable extent that the performer redoubled the volume of his cries and the bouncers consulted one another, converging on the offender like elementals from the four corners of the world. Hampered by their progress through the other patrons, they allowed evasive action; William dropped to his hands and knees, crippled by his own mirth as he negotiated the shifting copse of legs and shoes, sucking in a breath as a heel was stamped down on his hand. The bouncers lost him in the crush as miscued music swallowed the performance. He had gained the bar and was able to congratulate himself before two behemoths seized him from behind and conveyed him toward an external door.
The night outside was rank and clammy and its taste assaulted William sharply as he was dragged into a loading bay, punched three times for good measure and abandoned by his escorts. A cigarette dropped from his lips in the mouth of the alley, and he cursed and patted down his person in search of another. Beneath the bright red canopy over the entrance a woman in a slim black trench glanced toward him from her conversation with the doorman, glaring for a moment before ignoring him. William smiled, arms hanging by his sides in an attitude of wide-eyed solicitation; by the time she looked again he had moved the performance five steps closer and infused it with a dewy pathos that hardened her expression further. Her eyes were pale and darkly-painted, her face washed with a slowly-flashing blue from a light across the street. The length of her silver-blonde hair was concealed beneath the collar of her coat.
"It's shit in there anyway." he assured her, a statement the doorman was unable to contest, and she joined William on the footpath, taking a cigarette from her handbag. He suffered another of her disaffected gazes.
"Fucking Lauren left three grand's worth of shoe in the cab.” she informed him.
"So take me back to your place and teach me a lesson I'll never forget." he smiled.
"It's like three blocks to yours."
"Frost, there's an accommodation situation... I just talked my brother out of buying this shitbox here and to show his fucking gratitude he's putting me out of A-town like I scooted on the Wall Street Journal." he complained. They turned and began walking together slowly, stepping round the drift of steam from a kitchen vent beside the alley.
"You don't even have a brother."
"If only that were so."
"I've never seen him... I don't know anyone who knows him... that makes him imaginary, or an autistic fucking sasquatch."
"Let's change the subject."
"You brought him up." She shook the bangles on her right arm, knowing their metallic chatter nettled him; he caught her wrist and stilled them with a frown. "Is he hot?"
"No. I got all the pretty."
"He's rich though, right?"
"No. He's a... fiscally challenged... bukkake fiend with... two lazy eyes and eight chins. I don't like to talk about it." he sighed as they came to an intersection. "I should just introduce you. You could blowtorch his discretionary income and he could scar you emotionally and you'd never accuse me of holding out on you again."
"So what's his fucking problem?" A car slowed by her while its driver leant on the horn and out the window, expressing lascivious appreciation; she turned and lifted the front of William's kilt, terminating the exchange. Growing impatient with the lights, they walked together into the coasting traffic, paying no heed to the abuse attracted by their transection.
"It's complicated... with little to no nutritional value."
"I'll comp him just for busting you out of that janky-ass building. Avalon is full of chuds and kitten-fuckers."
"Su casa... mi casa?" he proposed.
"Did I say no? I meant hell no." she laughed.
"One week? Frosty... five working days? Allez, puta..." When she remained recalcitrant he turned in a pall of neon and threatened her with the hem of his kilt.
Wind, sweeping ceaselessly against the mountain on which Sachiin kneeled flapped the heavy layers of silk and figured brocades swathing the women before him, as though giving voice to their impatience. The priestesses struck his eyes as burning shapes that held the same terror in smoking purple negative when he closed them. He bowed his head, wary even of the detail in their pale hands and the repeats and roundels of their robes, their colours shrill in the morning sun. Like a second skin was the white clay painted on their foreheads and down over their wrists, hands, fingers, daubed even over their curving nails. It softened the sound of thick metals and jade as their bangles clashed together, the scolding chime of the tasseled silver pendants fluttering from combs atop their hair and around the repoussé tableaux of their diadems, impressed with warring deer and felines. He was accustomed to their baffling majesty and knew them to be trophies wrested from distant, reviled entities; Yuezhi and Wuhuan, Sogdians and Xiongnu, names he had never heard, their nomads as ruthlessly despoiled as their royal emissaries. It was the great crescent of lapis lazuli strung from the neck of the foremost priestess that instilled dread, its hypnotic colour found nowhere else in their wild domain, not in the two unvarying shades of their eyes, nor in the glaucous, ice-fed lakes, or even in the open sky of violet white; beloved of their fatal goddess, it was a herald of her distant nightmare realm. All this Sachiin had beheld to a greater or lesser degree, so oppressed by their intent upon him that he scarcely comprehended their questioning.
The wind began to shift the flakes of scree around his knees, their skittering passage underscoring the priestess's impatience. He looked up once more, their acid-hued eyes burning away his nerve.
"Are you your mother’s child, Sachiin?"
"I am." he replied.
"I ask again. Where is your brother Kala'amātya?" She spoke the name with violent distaste.
"My brother is by the lake." he murmured finally.
"Go now with our daughter Nyāti."
He fell in behind their acolyte, following her along a shallow, stony cirque cut by a watershed stream. Sachiin stared at the back of her clay-dressed coiffure, the endless black coils of her braids carefully daubed with white, though bare of the ornament worn by the elder members of the Sthali'sātva sisterhood. Formal distance had grown between them since her induction into their junior ranks, curtailing their exchanges. Over his shoulder, the Sthali'sātva disappeared from the ridge in the opposite direction, descending toward the tarn of his description. He tightened the waist of his dark robe, breaking from his companion to leap the stream and lope uphill, working himself into the cloven granite of an outcrop and watching the sacerdotal conclave through a split in the stone as they moved in stately, foreboding unison.
Far deeper than it was wide, the water of the tarn was darkly stained by a seam of nameless ore. As a mirror to the night sky it was reserved as the venue of recondite lunar observances, but his brother transgressed the prohibition with such regularity that the priestesses had finally apprehended him. They gathered on the shore to await his emergence. Sachiin's companion attempted to preserve decorum as she joined him in the narrow fissure. He glanced back into her golden eyes.
"Remember your star, Sachiin, and give thanks that you are not your brother." she whispered.
Two darker figures had accompanied the Sthali'sātva, mute and wreathed in drab black homespun, standing like commanded shadows behind the priestesses while the wind fretted the waters with lines of silky corrugation. Kala'amātya rose from it like something born out of its proscribed depths, his black braid settling on his back and merging with the pattern inscribed over its skin. He took up his robe and tied it about himself.
"Why does he love the water more than us?" Sachiin wondered.
"Ana'siām'ilye warns that we should not look for virtue in those made without it." Nyāti promised.
"Will they not beat him and be satisfied?"
"If you are to meet again, it will be where he is going... you cannot wish that." she told him, deploring the idea. "Say nothing of what you have seen."
By the lake, the dark male figures took up their places on either side of Kala'amātya, walking before the priestesses from the lonely stretch of water. Exile had settled on him as though his shadow had been shorn from his feet and tied about him like a shroud, transformed like the outcasts flanking him and sent toward perdition in the wastes that lapped the mountains. His brother's face, already harder than wind-harrowed stone, was crossed by the scars of punitive strokes, so intrinsic to him that they might have been innate deformity; his eyes saw nothing but what lay before him, ears deaf to admonition. The sullen veterans escorting him did so at a careful distance from his person. Sachiin glanced back at Nyāti.
"If he is not made to abide with us... could it be that he is destined for some other purpose?" he ventured softly, hoping she would support his naive logic with the dharma to which she had been admitted. She could not oblige him.
continued next week.
© céili o'keefe. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
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